Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: X-Men: Special Edition (2000)
Studio Line: 20th Century Fox - Join the Evolution

Born into a world filled with prejudice are children who possess extraordinary and dangerous powers -- the result is unique genetic mutations. Under the tutelage of Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), these outcasts learn to harness their powers for the good of mankind. They must protect those who fear them as the nefarious Magneto (Ian McKellen), who believes humans and mutants can never co-exist, unveils his sinister plan for the future.

Director: Bryan Singer
Cast: Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Bruce Davison, Tyler Mane, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Ray Park, Anna Paquin
Box Office: Budget: $75 million. Opening Weekend: $54.471 million (3025 screens). Gross: $156.507 million.
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Digital 5.1 & Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround; subtitles English, Spanish; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 28 chapters; rated PG; 104 min.; $29.98; street date 11/21/00.
Supplements: Extended Branching Version with 10 minutes of Extra Footage; “The Mutant Watch” 22-minute TV Special; 7 minutes of Interviews with Director Bryan Singer; Hugh Jackman’s Screen Test; Art Gallery; Animatics; Two Trailers; Three TV Spots; Music Promotional Spot; 2 Easter Eggs.
Purchase: DVD | Essential X-Men - Chris Claremont | Score soundtrack - Michael Kamen

Picture/Sound/Extras: A-/A-/B-

As a long-time comic book fan, I always watch with interest for new movies based on these characters. Unfortunately, the successes have been few and far between. On the positive side, Batman has received fairly good treatment; the first two films in the series - 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns - were both terrific, and even though the further explorations - 1995’s Batman Forever and 1997’s Batman and Robin - were seriously flawed, my affection for the character remained strong enough to entertain me to a degree.

Otherwise, the list of solid superhero movies is pretty short. The first two Superman flicks were generally compelling, though I never liked them nearly as much as I enjoyed the two Batman films I mentioned. Once we go beyond the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel, however… I draw a serious blank. Let’s see… I hated Conan the Barbarian, so I wouldn’t include it… Supergirl was a totally disaster… Spawn pretty much stunk… Wait - I liked Blade, so there’s one!

Other than that, I remain stumped. Despite that weak track record, expectations ran fairly high for the live-action adaptation of the X-Men. Based on what is allegedly the most popular comic book of all-time, this film would bring our favorite group of brooding mutants to the cinema in a hot feature directed by Bryan Singer, the man who helmed the wonderful Usual Suspects and the not-so-terrific Apt Pupil.

In my teens, I was a huge fan of superhero comics, and while “X-Men” wasn’t my favorite mag - I was always partial to Batman and Spider-Man myself - I nonetheless liked it. I haven’t perused any comics in some time now, but I remember a lot about the X-Men series and was interested to see how they’d develop on the big screen.

For the most part, I found X-Men to be a generally satisfying adventure. It doesn’t approach the heights of the first two Batman movies, but it also avoids the depths reached by almost everybody else. The film focuses largely on tough-guy Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, no relation to Hugh Jass), the group’s most popular character. We discover how he and power-absorbing Rogue (Anna Paquin) join the gang which then consisted of weather-controlling Storm (Halle Berry), laser-eyed Cyclops (James Marsden), telekinetic Jean Gray (Famke Janssen), and telepathic leader Professor X (Patrick Stewart).

The movie quickly sets up the battle between these good mutants - who strive to co-exist with humanity even though most “normal” homo sapiens fear these gifted homo superiors - and a nastier bunch called “The Brotherhood” who think a battle will eventually erupt between the two sides. Led by master of magnetism Magneto (Ian McKellen), the latter pack also includes animalistic Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), shape-shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), and hoppy, long-tongued Toad (Ray “Darth Maul” Park).

High points: X-Men wastes little time as it progresses through its sketchy plot. It’s basically bang-bang-bang: meet characters, provide a little exposition, get them in a fight, lather, rinse, repeat. Though this means we don’t get a great feel for the different personae and development seems minimal, at least it makes the movie move at a brisk pace. For a film with so many parts, greater development really needs to wait until the sequel when it can occur more naturally; to see more depth in the characters now, we’d have to slow down the story to a terrible degree, so the filmmakers chose correctly by saving the additional depth until later.

Despite the thin nature of their roles, all of the actors provide uniformly solid work. Really, there’s not a dog in the bunch, and all seem fairly equal. Jackman likely makes the strongest impression, but he also benefits from the largest and most commanding role; Jackman suits Wolverine physically and displays strong physicality. McKellen creates a powerful and threatening presence as Magneto; he’s truly over-qualified for such a role and he brings his considerable talent to bear in a fine performance. Although those two stood out to me, that shouldn’t negate the quality acting from the rest of the cast; everyone fills their roles nicely.

X-Men also provides some of the best action I’ve seen in a superhero film. There are really three major fight sequences, and all provide terrific thrills. Smartly, Singer ramps up the excitement level for each subsequent piece so that by the end, he has somewhere to go and the final scene delivers a fine climax.

Perversely, the only significant problem I had with X-Men related to one of its strengths: the speedy nature with which the story is told. The movie cranks by so quickly that I felt as thought some opportunities were missed. It’s a double-edged sword; what the film gained in kinetic excitement it lost in depth and development. Yes, I feel much of those elements can be better explored in a sequel and may have been ponderous here, but they nonetheless make the current film less rich. Part of the reason the first two Batman movies worked so well was due to their psychological aspects and the depth of the characters. However, they didn’t have anywhere near as many major roles, so this was made much easier.

Overall, X-Men does the best it can with the situation. The characters could be richer, but it’s hard to flesh out six main protagonists and a major villain in one film, and all of this neglects the movie’s subplot about a McCarthy-esque senator named Kelly (Bruce Davison) who favors the registration - and restriction - of mutants. X-Men has its flaws but in general it provides a satisfying and exciting rendition of the classic comic book series.

The DVD:

X-Men appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. If you’re looking for flaws, don’t inspect this disc because you’ll come away pretty unhappy; the DVD presented an absolutely terrific picture.

Sharpness appeared crisp and well-defined. At no time did I discern any examples of soft or hazy images; the movie always seemed very accurate and clear. Moiré effects and jagged edges caused no noticeable concerns, and artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV were fairly minor. I could see no signs of print defects; the film appeared free of grain, scratches, speckles, grit, hair or other flaws.

Colors appeared nicely clean and bright throughout the movie. They presented solid depth and were appropriately bold and rich. Since so much of X-Men takes place at night or in low-light situations, elements related to black levels became exceedingly important, and the DVD transmitted them in a deep and dark manner. Contrast appeared strong, and shadow detail was quite clear and appropriately opaque without any excessive heaviness; scenes like those in the truck between Wolverine and Rogue really looked great in that regard. Overall, X-Men provided a very distinctive picture and it was always a pleasure to watch.

Also quite solid was the film’s Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. The soundfield appeared very broad and engaging throughout the movie. All five speakers got a strong workout as they displayed a lot of discrete audio. This made for a convincing environment as we hear plenty of atmosphere and objects swirl actively and appropriately about us. Some sample highlights included: Wolverine’s initial meeting with Professor X, in which the latter’s voice pops up all around us; the scenes in the “Cerebro” device, which create a somewhat similar “inside your head” effect; and the battle between Storm and Toad at the end of the film. Actually, any of the fight scenes were quite powerful, but this one seemed most exciting in the auditory realm.

Sound quality also appeared very good. Dialogue was crisp and distinct. Speech showed no signs of edginess or any problems related to intelligibility. I’m not sure if it counts as voice or effect, but I loved the richness of Sabretooth’s roar; it really seemed aggressive and bold. Effects were always clear and dynamic, plus they displayed virtually no signs of distortion even when the volume level jumped fairly high; throughout explosions, crashes, and various engines, the track stayed clean. Music sounded appropriately bright and accurate and portrayed the score appropriately. The mix featured some pretty solid bass at times as the entire affair seemed nicely deep. All in all, the soundtrack worked well for the material and didn’t disappoint me.

Although X-Men isn’t the feature-packed special edition we might like - and might get, as I’ll discuss later - it does include a few decent extras. First of all, you can watch the movie either in its original theatrical configuration or as the “Extended Branching Version”. Unlike fellow Fox DVDs Independence Day and The Abyss, X-Men doesn’t use “seamless branching”. Those films allowed the viewer the choice of either their theatrical cuts or their longer editions, and “seamless branching” made the jumps appear nonexistent; anyone who watched the shorter theatrical versions saw no signs that they had to skip material found in the longer cuts. (Actually, to say “anyone” is a stretch because some have encountered trouble with this feature, but if the branching worked correctly - as it did for my screenings of the DVDs in question - then the edits truly did appear flawless.)

For X-Men, however, the DVD doesn’t allow you to see a longer version of the film, at least not in the conventional manner. If you choose to watch the “Extended Branching Version”, the DVD displays a white “X-Men” insignia six times during the film and then cuts away to the added footage. Actually, the way they depart from the progressing movie resembles the features found in both The Matrix and The World Is Not Enough; for those DVDs, you could leave the film to watch some “behind the scenes” footage. However, they required you to press a button when you saw a sign flash on the screen, whereas X-Men does it automatically.

Six extra scenes appear during the film. All of these relate to either the relationship between Rogue and the boy she meets in class or to the triangle between Jean, Cyclops and Wolverine. Most are extensions of existing segments, which means that we often see these longer pieces and then watch the same material again when the full film resumes. None of them are crucial, but I found all of them to be fairly interesting in the ways the round out the characters.

The scenes last between 21 seconds and three minutes, 13 seconds, for a total of 10 minutes and 39 seconds of footage. Four of the added bits appear between the 27:15 and 38:19 marks of the movie; these were the longest segments of the bunch as well. The two shortest sequences can be found at 49:45 and 1:09:17. All of the clips are letterboxed in the correct 2.35:1 proportions and they generally look fairly good, though they aren’t up to the high standards of the full movie; the added sequences seemed darker and more brown.

They feature Dolby Surround 2.0 sound, though in fact they appeared monaural to my ears; the tracks were restricted to audio from the set and displayed no music or added effects. If you prefer not to interrupt the movie to watch these clips, you can also select each of them from a menu on the DVD. I checked them out as the film progressed but would not do so again; they break the pacing of the picture too strongly.

Our next extra is a very glossy and promotional TV special called “The Mutant Watch”. This 21-minute and 50-second infomercial uses a mildly clever framework to provide its advertising details: we find new footage of Bruce Davison as Senator Kelly, and the setting used Senate hearing to show the information. We find a variety of movie clips, extremely rapid interview sound bites with cast and crew, and some decent but also very short behind the scenes bits. Easily the most interesting piece concerned the application of Rebecca Romijn-Stamos’s make-up, but that was just because I hoped to sneak a peek at some skin. Overall, the program is a decent little promotional exercise but nothing else; anyone who hopes to find solid information about the creation of the film will have to look elsewhere.

The next segment of the DVD adds some of those details, but not a lot. An “Interview With Director Bryan Singer” actually provides excerpts from a longer segment featured on the “Charlie Rose Show” during the summer of 2000. In these five snippets, Rose talks to Singer about “Why He Made X-Men”, “Bringing X-Men From Comic Book to the Big Screen”, “Directing Actors”, “Learning From Actors”, and “The Challenges of Making a Studio Film”. Each bit lasts between 25 seconds and 110 seconds for a total of six minutes and 55 seconds of material.

Overall, these are some decent clips that provide a little additional information and perspective about the project. They’re too brief to be genuinely helpful - I really missed the presence of an audio commentary - but they were fairly interesting. One annoyance: at the start of some clips, the edits seemed awkward and appeared to jump in mid-word. I also would have liked an option to play all the bits back to back instead of needing to pick each one individually.

The material found in “Hugh Jackman’s Screen Test” should be self-explanatory. Here we see Jackman as he performs with Paquin; they run through an extended version of their scene in the truck. It’s a fun look at this early take on the characters.

The “Art Gallery” breaks down into “Character Design” and “Production Design”. The first subcategory provides 103 examples of sketches; we see a wide variety of different looks that were considered. For those of us who know the characters, it’s a cool examination of the various options; the only helpful addition would have been some examples of the ways the folks appeared in their comic book lives. The second subrealm offers an additional 65 frames of information. These drawings display a variety of different set designs and ideas for vehicles and other props.

As noted on this DVD, “Animatics” are “animated storyboards used to visualize the look of a scene before filming”. Here we find two examples: the “Train Station Fight Sequence” and the “Statue of Liberty Fight Sequence”. The first runs for 50 seconds while the second lasts 60 seconds. Unlike traditional animatics - which used livelier versions of storyboards - these clips feature some relatively crude computer animation. I’ve never seen them done in this format; I seem to recall viewing computerized animatics in the past, but not to this level of detail, as the pieces resemble video game graphics from the mid-Nineties. I enjoyed this piece and only wish we’d found more of these.

To round out the DVD, we find two theatrical trailers, three TV spots, and one “Music Promotional Spot”. The last one runs 30 seconds and simply advertises the CD of the film’s score.

Two “Easter eggs” appear on X-Men. To get the first, go to the “Art Gallery” menu and activate Wolverine’s dog tags. When you click on these, you’ll find six additional sketches that show a couple of characters cut from the film. If you enter the “Trailers” menu, highlight the rose on this screen and you’ll see a fun 30 second outtake.

X-Men uses some unusual packaging for a single-disc set. It comes in a shiny metallic slipcase and a trifold set-up similar to that of the Fight Club and Rocky Horror Picture Show DVDs. However, those were 2-DVD packs, which makes its use here strange. Is this a sign that Fox planned to make X-Men a two-disc set but had to scrap those hopes at the last minute?

As first seen on the Fight Club DVD - and also available with Terminator 2 “Ultimate Edition”, the Toy Story movies and a number of Anchor Bay DVDs - X-Men includes the "THX Optimode" program to set up your TV. This provides you with information to correctly configure various audio and video aspects of your home theater. I don't think it fully replaces something like Video Essentials, but then again, "Optimode" comes as a free addition to a DVD, so it's clearly a bargain. If you haven't already used VE or some similar product, you should find "Optimode" very helpful.

Although X-Men won’t qualify for the title of Greatest Comic Book Adaptation Ever, it provided a solidly entertaining and exciting experience that placed it much closer to the top of the heap than the bottom. The film introduces the myriad of characters in a shallow but effective manner and offers some very good action pieces. The DVD delivers as well; it features very strong picture and sound plus a smattering of decent but unspectacular supplements. Fans of superhero comics will likely enjoy X-Men and should give it a look.

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